Officials in the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association blasted the company over outdated technology and processes that worsened flight cancellations over the holiday season, stranding thousands of customers across the nation as winter weather disrupted operations.
The carrier, which announced plans to resume normal operations beginning on Friday, canceled nearly two-thirds of flights for several days, even after severe winter weather conditions that struck the United States ahead of Christmas had long since abated. Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Capt. Casey Murray remarked during an interview with Fox Business that the company was not “prepared” to deal with holiday traffic and winter conditions.
“Unfortunately, this has been a decade in the making. We have sounded alarm bells, we have tried to get them to change processes,” he remarked. “It’s a combination of processes, outdated technology, and infrastructure.”
Murray added that “one domino” falling creates a host of “other issues,” noting that the airline always begins “each day with enough pilots, flight attendants, ramp agents, customer service agents there to do the job.”
Unlike other carriers, Southwest uses a “point-to-point” route model that avoids hubs and offers faster flights to residents of smaller cities, according to an analysis from The New York Times. One disadvantage to the model is a lower availability of excess crew members in those cities, leading to ripple effects across the entire carefully managed network, which relies upon planes continuing to move between airports.
“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time,” Murray said. “But clearly, we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what’s happening right now.”
Share prices for Southwest have dropped nearly 9% over the past five trading days as executives attempt to implement damage control; the company’s stock has plummeted more than 24% since the beginning of the year. Southwest plans to reimburse the thousands of passengers whose flights were canceled, as well as those who were forced to stay in hotels, rent cars, or purchase tickets with another carrier.
Southwest Airlines Pilots Association Vice President Capt. Mike Santoro asserted in a separate interview with Fox Business that lackluster transparency from company leadership has been particularly exasperating for union leadership. “We make calls and try to get insight, but all we’ve been told is pretty much how many flights are canceling each day, which has actually changed today than what we were told yesterday,” he commented.
Santoro remarked that Southwest has experienced “a meltdown a year for the last five or six years,” prompting union officials to call executives to fix scheduling processes and technology infrastructure since disruptions from severe weather are “unavoidable.”
“They needed to do this a long time ago,” he said. “We’ve been warning them at the pilot’s union.”
The winter storm and subsequent cancellations, which impacted other major airlines to a significantly lesser extent than Southwest, occurred during a robust holiday travel season. Some 54 million passengers planned to depart from airports between December 18 and January 3, constituting a 20% increase from last year, according to data from Hopper.